Standing Up For Rural Health
By Bree Watzak
In the best of times, rural communities in America experience firsthand the deep inequities and dangerous gaps in the nation’s health system. But these are not the best of times.
As the COVID-19 pandemic stretches into its second year, America’s rural health infrastructure is stretched to the breaking point, and if relief doesn’t come soon, the damage may never be reversed.
Funding from the 2020 Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act helped support hospitals and clinics as they maintained and sought to increase access to healthcare in rural areas during the pandemic. But what happens when that money is gone? The reality is that rural America has a healthcare workforce shortage while simultaneously having a population that is older, sicker, and poorer.
As highlighted in our last blog, we’ve seen resiliency and innovation from rural healthcare workers and hope that some of their solutions outlive the pandemic. We want to do more than hope and so my colleagues at the Center for Optimizing Rural Health (CORH) and I plan to do everything we can to help rural America achieve the brightest future.
For years I have advocated for the hospitals we collaborate with at CORH. This year I have the opportunity to work with likeminded leaders from across the country who all want to stand up for rural health providers through the National Rural Health Association Rural Health Congress.
Together the Rural Health Congress will work on priority issues including the continuation of federal provisions that make telehealth more commonplace, which when partnered with improved broadband access have been instrumental in maintaining access to care during the COVID-19 pandemic. Addressing workforce shortages, exploring options to allow rural hospitals to convert to critical access hospitals that help maintain essential services, and equipping rural health providers with the important resources they need to manage the effects of the novel coronavirus. We will continue efforts to stress the vital role many struggling rural hospitals play in countless communities across the nation.
I need you to join me in this advocacy.
The word “advocacy” may conjure up thoughts of walking the halls of Congress and meeting lawmakers from your hometown or state. But it isn’t necessarily that—it covers a spectrum of activities. From voting in local, state, and federal elections to meeting with elected representatives, advocacy comes in many forms. Other simple acts of advocacy may include responding to a survey from your local county official or state assemblyperson as well as reaching out to elected officials and attending a grassroots-organized event about an issue that concerns you.
More importantly, share your story. Stories give elected officials the human context around an issue and shows them how their votes affect a rural area. All rural areas are not the same so while big data drives decision making, stories are what bring it to life.
An easy place to start any new advocacy efforts is by looking at calls for stories and the data summaries which will support your point of view at the Rural Health Information Hub and the Rural Health Research Gateway.
Where the power of advocacy can be truly unleashed is through organized activism that brings together a groundswell of grassroots activity in pursuit of a common cause. In an era of unprecedented money in politics and government gridlock, the power and strength of a well-organized advocacy campaign can break through barriers and open doors that were previously closed.
The start of a new year is a great time to consider the role you can play as an advocate in your community. A new presidential administration is outlining its agenda. Many state legislatures will begin to consider annual or biennial budget bills that will have direct influence on the resources and services provided to your community. Many local city councils will do the same.
Be an advocate. Get involved. We all need to stand up for rural health right now.